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February 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal


Better utilizing the timber

Comeau Lumber, a small sawmill in Nova Scotia, is in the process of modernizing its equipment to make better use of the changing raw material they are working with from small private woodlots in the province.

By Stephen Bornais

Innovation for Greg Shay isn’t about trying to show off or look smart. It’s about survival. Shay owns and runs Comeau Lumber, a small, unpretentious sawmill in the heart of Nova Scotia’s Acadian community about 250 kilometres from Halifax.

The mill is small, even by Nova Scotia standards. Its 50-person workforce produces about 12 million board feet a year. But that’s about to get bigger, thanks in part to an ambitious expansion plan.

“We’re trying to get to up to the 18 to 20 million board foot range. We think that’s a comfortable range for our size,” Shay says.

Comeau Lumber’s Greg Shay (above) on the mill’s expansion: “We’re trying to get up to the 18 to 20 million board foot range. We think that’s a comfortable range for our size.”

Comeau Lumber has undertaken an ambitious expansion plan, one that will allow it to better utilize smaller-diameter logs, a resource the mill cannot efficiently process at the moment. But that’s not the only ace Shay has up his sleeve to keep the mill a step ahead of his competitors.

Comeau Lumber is also moving ahead with a plan to sell surplus electricity that it produces at the mill to Nova Scotia Power Inc, the provincial utility. “Hopefully, that will increase our survival chances,” Shay says. Comeau Lumber has been surviving for 100 years, repeatedly transforming itself over those years. Production has grown and declined while products have come and gone. “The mainstay for the mill for the first half of the 1900s was wooden boxes for the fishing and agricultural industries,” Shay explains.

In the 1970s, the mill made the move into construction-grade lumber which, in turn, required the mill itself to be upgraded, a process that continues today. “Over the years, kilns and planers were added so that today our focus is lumber that’s graded to NLGA standards, and sold to the housing market across North America,” he says.

But Comeau Lumber hasn’t forgotten its roots. The mill still turns out those wooden boxes, mainly for the fishing industry, specializing in the smaller boxes used for salt fish and smoked herring. This sideline generates about 20 per cent of mill revenues. “The box business is still here. It’s one of those things we do to spread our revenue eggs a little bit.”

Despite its size, Shay says Comeau Lumber still produces a full range of products. “We’re not a niche (mill) in that we’re still in the 2x4, 2x6 rat race, but we try to do some other things here to take some of the pressure off that,” he says.

One of those things is a truss plant that Comeau Lumber opened in the early 1990s, giving the operation a crucial value-added product. The trusses are sold in southwest Nova Scotia. “It seemed to be an opportunity at the time. I don’t know if it was, but I thought it was a way to try to take just a little bit of pressure off the commodity business we’re in, and re-direct some of that wood into a product that brings in better value and a better return.”

Greg Shay shows some of the mill’s wood waste that fuels a high-pressure steam boiler that turns a one megawatt generator. Comeau Lumber has signed an agreement to produce electricity for sale into the provincial power grid.

Comeau historically exported more of its production to the United States, but with the demise of the lumber agreement and ongoing duty problems, Shay says the markets became too soft to bother. “More recently, the Maritime (Canada) market has been strong for us, so our focus has shifted, although I suspect we’ll be back into the States,” he says.

In the last 10 years, the mill has gradually increased its kiln and planer capacity while upgrading the saw operations in “small increments as we’ve gone along. We trying to modernize a bit,” he says.

Currently, the mill operates a 26-inch Forano ring debarker that feeds the logs into the main breakdown rig, a Forano double-cut bandsaw. That feeds cants into a Valley Machine Works narrow-kerf, toparbor guided bull edger, which was installed several years ago during the first phase of modernization. “That takes most of our cants now and breaks them down into two-inch stock,” he says. Comeau also has a board edger with shifting saws and a Canadian-style trimmer.

Phase two sees the mill installing a used CM & E chipper canter that Shay picked up at an auction from a mill that had gone under. Comeau is also installing new Cardinal chip conveyors and step feeders. Nova Scotia-based McDonnell Welding supplied a new overhead chip bin, but that work is only indirectly related to the canter project, Shay says.

The work was a little bit behind schedule, partly because Comeau Lumber—to help keep costs down—is fabricating many of the conveyances and performing the installation itself. “Sometimes it is difficult trying to do that and still run your operation,” Shay says. “We tend to get thrown off schedule a little bit.”

The new equipment will allow the mill to make better use of changing raw material. “We find, like everyone else does, that we need to react better to the specifications of the raw material that’s coming in,” Shay explains. “The saw logs are getting a bit smaller at the top so we’re trying to install some machinery that will let us be a little more efficient at processing the smaller diameter material.”

Once the new equipment is up and running, Shay says the mill will start diverting some of its raw material straight to the chipper-canter with the rest heading for the bandmill. “They’ll meet again at our new Valley edger and either be re-manned at the board edger/resaw or go straight through the trimming system,” he adds.

The overall modernization project marks a huge step forward for the mill.

“First the bull edger and now this chipper-canter. Those are big jumps for us in our production capability,” Shay says.

Comeau Lumber buys all of its timber from local private woodlots with limited supply coming from its own woodlands.“About 90 per cent of our log material comes from private lots which we have to compete for on a daily basis,” he says. “We’ve got some big buyers in this province and that puts a lot of pressure on us smaller guys trying to compete for the raw log.”

One way to boost supply in Nova Scotia would be to ban raw log exports. For Shay, it is a question with many answers, depending on which side of the debate you happen to be on.“The selfish answer is ‘yes, keep them all in the province’,” he says. “No one wants to see the raw material exported, doesn’t matter what it is.”

The mill’s main focus in terms of production is lumber that is graded to NLGA standards and sold into housing markets across North America.

One product that Comeau Lumber cannot wait to export is electricity. “We have this little power plant on the go that’s been a natural component of this mill for many, many years,” Shay says. “We have a history here of producing our own power and steam for our kilns.”

Comeau Lumber produces enough wood waste to meet current requirements. The expansion will take care of future needs.

The high-pressure steam boiler turns a generator with a capacity of one megawatt. Last year, Comeau signed an agreement with Nova Scotia Power Inc (NSP) to produce electricity for sale into the provincial grid, a deal that was awaiting completion of a System Impact Study.

NSP CEO Chris Huskilson said in an interview that projects such as the one at Comeau Lumber will form an important part of the utility’s plan to double the amount of electricity it gets from renewable sources. He sees opportunities across the province, not just from Comeau Lumber, but for even larger, purpose-built bio-mass plants burning both wood waste and hardwoods.

Those plans are too big for Shay. The great attraction of the NSP deal is that Comeau Lumber does not have to spend a bundle to upgrade the boiler. “We have much more capacity then we have requirement for with the mill only working one shift,” he says. “Our infrastructure is here and the men are here so it’s an incremental revenue stream that will help.”

Revenue from the sale of electricity will be plowed straight back into the mill. “That’s the driver,” he says.

The deal has other attractions for Comeau Lumber. Provincial labour regulations require the boiler to be staffed 24 hours a day, regardless of whether it is producing power or not. “That starts to wear at you in terms of unnecessary overhead and cost. So it didn’t take us long to look at the Nova Scotia Power opportunity as a way to generate extra revenue to offset some of the cost of operating the boiler room on a 24-hour basis,” Shay explains.

Comeau’s ability to produce its own electricity has played a role in the company’s survival, Shay says, “or at least I like to tell myself so. It’s kept our power costs very competitive with others. It’s given us a reasonable degree of flexibility in producing power and steam. In the long run, it’s more profitable for this plant to be producing its own power than buying it straight off the grid.”


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